Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Afghanistan spiral

For a couple of years or so now, I have been peripherally aware of the state of affairs in Afghanistan - the Taliban not yet routed, Karzai's authority being limited to Kabul, the occasional bombings and deaths of civilians, reconstruction going nowhere, promises of international aid remaining unfulfilled and the opium crop and trade booming.

Suicide bombings in Afghanistan have jumped sharply in the last couple of years. In 2002, there was one failed attempt. In 2005 there were 21 incidents of suicide bombings. In the first 8 months of 2006 there were 43. The Taliban (and perhaps Al Qaeda) have found this method of mayhem to be quite effective.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, who is supposed to have spent a few days in Taliban captivity, has recently written a series of articles at Asia Times which speak of a coming spring offensive by the Taliban as an inevitability. The articles contain, among other interesting details, descriptions of "logistics experts" gathering supplies, a field commander discussing how the occupation is unifying disparate groups and notorious warlord Gulbudin Hekmatyar jockeying for more power. None of these is a good sign.

Perhaps as a response to this, the Bush administration is seeking $10.6 billion for its efforts in Afghanistan. The money is for two years, but $8.6 billion of it is to be spent on "security". At 81%, the ratio of the money spent on security to the money spent on other activities (reconstruction/development/infrastructure/social services) is too high. Even this high a ratio is actually an improvement on the Bush administration's track record in Afghanistan and Iraq. Included in this extremely informative report by the Congressional Research Service is the fact that of the nearly $88 billion spent on Afghanistan since 9/11, only about $6 billion has gone towards reconstruction and aid.

I think that this is a consistent and tragic mistake. The only way that the Taliban can be ultimately rooted out is if the current administration is able to show that people are better off under it. Given that the country has been a ruin for a long time, thanks first to the Soviets, then to the civil war and finally to the American bombing campaigns, basic things like roads, electricity and medical facilities are extremely important. Lacking an economic base, the government has to rely on foreign aid. Unfortunately, therein lies the rub.

Foreign aid is notorious for being administered extremely poorly and aid to Afghanistan is no exception. Most US foreign aid ends up as payments to American companies who work on horrendously expensive projects that are shoddily executed. Take the case of the Louis Berger group for example. This company had received contracts worth $665 million to build clinics, schools roads etc. in Afghanistan. According to Ann Jones, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, the company built a two-lane shoulder-less road that cost about a million dollars a mile, when other groups could have built it for about 40% of the cost. The clinics that the company built are crumbling. This detailed report tells the long, sad story of Afghan reconstruction.

Multi-lateral aid is not very much better. Over the four-year period from May 2002 to September 2006, 25 donor countries had ponied up $1.4 billion (of the $1.7 billion pledged) to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund. This fund is overseen by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Islamic Development Bank and the UNDP. Of the $1.4 billion, $860 million has gone towards the expenses of the Afghan government (salaries and maintenance) while only $214 million has gone for investment projects.

All of this is fairly well-recognized and documented. Nevertheless, it is galling to see headlines talk of the money being requested and spent as "aid". Firstly, most of the money is for military operations. It does not aid anybody. Secondly, whatever small fraction is for development or reconstruction makes its way to American companies or corrupt officials in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the end, the people in those countries are left without regular electricity or decent roads. All they have are the token schools and the crumbling clinics. These are then listed as proud achievements by local and American bureaucrats who don't ever distinguish between progress and the mere appearance of activity. No wonder the public in Afghanistan fails to see the benefits of American largesse.

American contractors, bless their souls, are generously rewarded for their devotion to duty. For its successes, the Louis Berger group has been awarded an additional five-year contract worth $1.4 billion.

I don't see things improving much in Afghanistan. And if Shahzad is right, a major confrontation between NATO forces and the Taliban is looming. Again, a lot of misery will be heaped upon the long-suffering population. For this at least, I would be very happy to be proved wrong by events.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

More translation

This nazm was written by Rajendra Nath 'Rehbar' . I transcribed the lyrics from the version sung by Jagjit Singh, which seems to skip one stanza from the original.

जिनको दुनिया की निगाहों से छुपाए रखा
जिनको इक उम्र कलेजे से लगाए रखा
दीन जिनको जिन्हें ईमान बनाए रखा

तूने दुनिया की निगाहों से जो बचकर लिखे
साल हा साल मेरे नाम बराबर लिखे
कभी दिन में तो कभी रात को उठकर लिखे

तेरे खु़शबू में बसे ख़त मैं जलाता कैसे
प्यार में डूबे हुए ख़त मैं जलाता कैसे
तेरे हाथों के लिखे ख़त मैं जलाता कैसे

तेरे ख़त आज मैं गंगा में बहा आया हूँ
आग बहते हुए पानी में लगा आया हूँ

[ Jin ko duniya ki nigaahon se chhupaye rakha
Jin ko ik umr kaleje se lagaaye rakha
Deen jin ko jinhen eemaan banaye rakha

Tune duniya ki nigaahon se jo bachkar likhe
Saal ha saal mere naam baraabar likhe
Kabhi dine mein to kabhi raat ko uthkar likhe

Tere khushboo mein base khat main jalaata kaise
Pyaar mein doobe huye khat main jalaata kaise
Tere haathon ke likhe khat main jalaata kaise

Tere khat aaj main Ganga mein baha aaya hoon
Aag behte huye paani mein laga aaya hoon]

My translation:
Hidden from the eyes of the world, they were kept
Close to my heart for an age, they were kept
As my faith and conscience, they were kept

Concealed from the world, you wrote them
Year after year, in my name, you wrote them
During the day, sometimes at night you wrote them

Steeped in your fragrance, these letters how could I burn
Immersed in love, these letters how could I burn
Written by your hands, these letters how could I burn

Your letters afloat in the Ganga I have set
On fire, the flowing waters I have set
This has been rendered beautifully by Jagjit Singh. Listen to it here.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Nobel prize for parsing

My nominee for this year is the Honorable Attorney General of the United States. Clause 2, Section 9, Article 1 of the US Constitution reads:

The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

In testimony before the Senate judiciary committee on January 18, 2007, Mr. Gonzalez averred that this actually means that

"... the Constitution doesn’t say, “Every individual in the United States or every citizen is hereby granted or assured the right to habeas.” It doesn’t say that. It simply says the right of habeas corpus shall not be suspended except by — ..."

A transcript of his deeply thoughtful remarks is available here.

A finer example of a legal mind in the service of freedom I am yet to find.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


The main reason for the resurgence of the ghazal genre in India from the 1980s onwards has been its popularization by singers. As with other things subcontinental, popular ghazal music is often kitschy. Nevertheless, it has helped to keep Urdu poetry alive in public consciousness in India. The singers usually choose lyrics in which the Urdu has been kept simple. The main part of the poetry package is the surprise element in each sher (couplet). Most popular ghazals are about ishq, husn and nasha (love, beauty and intoxication) - themes that are long-lived staples of poetry in that part of the world. Deeper thought, if there is much of it, has not been popularized by the singers. Nor has the listening public demanded it.

Ghulam Ali, a Pakistani ghazal singer, is very popular in India as well. Here is one ghazal where he plays to the gallery. On this track, you can also hear the intrusive vaah-vaahi (loud audience approval) that is considered an essential ingredient of proper appreciation. Here are the lyrics:

हमको किसके ग़म ने मारा ये कहानी फ़िर सही
किसने तोड़ा दिल हमारा ये कहानी फ़िर सही

दिल के लुटने का सबब पूछो न सबके सामने
नाम आएगा तुम्हारा ये कहानी फ़िर सही

नफ़रतों के तीर खाकर दोस्तों के शहर में
हमने किस किस को पुकारा ये कहानी फ़िर सही

क्या बताएँ प्यार की बाज़ी वफ़ा की राह में
कौन जीता कौन हारा ये कहानी फ़िर सही

[ Ham ko kis ke gham ne maara, yeh kahani phir sahi
Kis ne toda dil hamaara, yeh kahani phir sahi

Dil ke lutne ka sabab poochcho na sab ke saamne
Naam aayega tumhaara, yeh kahani phir sahi

Nafraton ke teer khaakar doston ke shahar mein
Ham ne kis kis ko pukaara, yeh kahani phir sahi

Kyaa bataayen pyaar ki baazi, vafa ki raah mein
Kaun jeeta kaun haara, yeh kahani phir sahi ]

Here is my translation:

Whose sorrow was it that struck me; that story some other time
Who was it that broke my heart; that story some other time

Do not ask openly for the reason my heart was plundered
Your name will come up; that story some other time

Suffering the arrows of hate, in the city of friends
Who was it I called for; that story some other time

What can I say, the gamble of love in the path of fidelity
Who won, who lost; that story some other time

The trouble with translation is trying to be faithful to the original. If you get the rhyme right, you have to mess with the word order. If you manage to get those elements right, it will screw up the meter. If by some miracle, you manage to get past those hurdles, the idiom sounds outlandish or the lines seem to drip with sentimentality. Sometimes, there is no option but to give up the entire effort. Thanks to my limited attempts, I am beginning to develop great respect for Shahriar Shahriari, who has translated some Omar Khayyam verses in multiple and elegant ways.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Costa Rica

I visited Costa Rica for a short vacation in the last week of December. We spent 4 days in Manuel Antonio, book-ending our visit by a night and a day in San Jose, the capital. Costa Rica is a beautiful, peaceful country with the unique distinction of having abolished its military in 1949. It thrives today on eco-tourism, which attracts a large number of visitors from North America and Europe.

Manuel Antonio is a small town catering to the tourists coming to Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, a rainforest preserve at the very edge of the Pacific Ocean. The beaches are some of the best in Costa Rica and the scenery is spectacular. We stayed at Hotel Coco Beach in Manuel Antonio. The hotel is functional at best, but is only a five minute walk from the beach and the national park. Being on a hill, it offers some good views. I managed to catch some dramatic orange hues one evening:

At the park itself, I got the feeling that there were very few animals. Perhaps they stay away from the well-trodden tourist trails. Perhaps the park authorities herd tourists through a stretch where the animals won't be disturbed. You also need a park guide with his telescope to point out the monkeys, sloths and birds high up in the trees. While pointing out the three-toed sloth, the guide told us that Costa Ricans believe that it is a close relative of their bureaucrats.

We got our best view of the sloth that night, when we noticed it making its slow progress while hanging upside down from an electrical wire by the roadside. This roadside sighting is not unusual, as we noticed another sloth the next day on a fence.

The highlight of our trip was the zip-line canopy tour at a forest in Quepos, about 10 km or so from Manuel Antonio. They use a harness and pulley system to suspend you from a steel cable set up between two tall trees. The cables are usually about 100 feet above the ground. Once you jump off the tree platform, you are literally flying above the forest canopy at a pretty decent speed. It is an exhilarating experience. And of course, the views are spectacular. The tour can be taken by most people; the guides usually ride along with children five and under. In our group, we had a 55-year-old woman and a 4-year-old girl. Don't miss it if you ever get a chance.

The people of Costa Rica are quite laid back and incredibly friendly and helpful. Enough people speak English, though we did have a couple of occasions where we wished we had some translation help.

Thanks to a colleague at work, I also had a list of fruits and fruit juices to try when I was there. Among the drinks I sampled were cas, mora en leche (blackberries in milk) and agua dulce (warm drink with sugarcane juice).

If you go to Manuel Antonio, make sure you visit the El Avion restaurant and bar. It is set up in and around a C-123 US cargo plane abandoned during the 1980s just when the Iran-Contra scandal came to light. You can enjoy the superb views while sipping some delicious fruit juice and pondering the ethics of US intervention in Latin America.